He has all the qualities and all the shortcomings of the reflective, humane, sensuous artist temperament, intensified by the fact that he had not had the advantage of a middle-class training.

In a dozen ways our Puritan discipline and the rubs and buffets one gets in this work-a-day world where money is more highly esteemed than birth or sainthood or genius, have brought us beyond Shakespeare in knowledge of men and things. The courage of the Puritan, his self-denial and selfcontrol, have taught us invaluable lessons; Puritanism tempered character as steel is tempered with fire and ice, and the necessity of getting one's bread, not as a parasite, but as a fighter, has had just as important results on character. Shakespeare is no longer an ideal to us; no single man can now fill our mental horizon; we can see around and above the greatest of the past: the overman of to-day is only on the next round of the ladder, and our children will smile at the fatuity of his conceit.

But if we can no longer worship Shakespeare, it is impossible not to honour him, impossible not to love him. All men-Spenser as well as Jonson found him gentle and witty, gay and generous. He was always willing to touch up this man's play or write in an act for that one. He never said a bitter or cruel word about any man. Compare him with Dante or even with Goethe, and you shall find him vastly superior to either of them in loving-kind

He was more contemptuously treated in life than even Dante, and yet he never fell away to bitterness as Dante did: he complained, it is true; but he never allowed his fairness to be warped; he was of the noblest intellectual temper.

It is impossible not to honour him, for the truth is he had more virtue in him than any other son of


man. By their fruits ye shall know them.” He produced more masterpieces than any other writer, and the finest sayings in the world's literature are his. Think of it: Goethe was perfectly equipped; he had a magnificent mind and body and temperament: he was born in the better middle classes; he was well off ; splendidly handsome; thoroughly educated; his genius was recognized on all hands when he was in his teens; and it was developed by travel and princely patronage. Yet what did Goethe do in proof of his advantages ? “Faust” is the only play he ever wrote that can rank at all with a dozen of Shakespeare's. Poor Shakespeare brought it further in the sixteenth century than even Goethe at full strain could bring it in the nineteenth. I find Shakespeare of surpassing virtue. Cervantes ranks with the greatest because he created Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; but Hamlet and Falstaff are more significant figures, and take Hamlet and Falstaff away from Shakespeare's achievement, and more still remains than any other poet ever produced.

Harvest after harvest Shakespeare brought forth of astounding quality. Yet he was never strong, and he died at fifty-two, and the last six years of his life were wasted with weakness and ill-health. No braver spirit has ever lived. After “Hamlet” and “ Antony and Cleopatra” and “Lear” and “Timon” he broke down; yet as soon as he struggled back to sanity, he came to the collar again and dug The Winter's Tale” out of himself, and “ Cymbeline, and seeing they were not his best, took breath, and brought forth “ The Tempest ”-another masterpiece, though written with a heart of lead and with the death-sweat dank on his forehead. Think of it; the noblest autumn fruit ever produced; all kindly

[ocr errors]

sweet and warm, bathed so to speak in love's golden sunshine; his last word to men:

“ The rarer action is In virtue than in vengeance.

And then the master of many styles, including the simple, wins to a childlike simplicity, and touches the source of tears:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."

True, Shakespeare was not the kind of man Englishmen are accustomed to admire. By a curious irony of fate Jesus was sent to the Jews, the most unworldly soul to the most material of peoples, and Shakespeare to Englishmen, the most gentle sensuous charmer to a masculine, rude race.

It may be well for us to learn what infinite virtue lay in that frail, sensual singer.

This dumb struggling world, all in travail between Thought and Being, longs above everything to realize itself and become articulate, and never has it found such width of understanding, such melody of speech, as in this Shakespeare. I have often said, and will often repeat," writes Goethe, “that the final cause and consummation of all natural and human activity is dramatic poetry.” Englishmen do not appear yet to understand what arrogance and what profound wisdom there is in this saying; but in a dull, half conscious way they are beginning dimly to realize that the biggest thing they have done in the world yet is to produce Shakespeare. When I think of his paltry education, his limiting circumstances, the scanty appreciation of his con


[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

temporaries, his indifferent health, and recall his stupendous achievement, I am fain to apply to him, as most appropriate, the words he gave to his alter ego, Antony, Antony who, like himself, was worldworn and passion-weary:

A rarer spirit never
Did steer humanity; but you, gods, will give us
Some faults to make us men.

« VorigeDoorgaan »